Case of Girl ‘Manhandled’ by Police Headed to Trial

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – A woman can pursue punitive damages for an incident in which Fresno police officers allegedly manhandled her and arrested her for loitering at a popular after-school hangout when she was 15, a federal judge ruled.
     U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence O’Neill found that it remains to be seen whether the officers acted maliciously toward Idalia Morgutia-Johnson, so she can continue to seek punitive damages.
     Johnson was a 15-year-old student at Hoover High School when the incident occurred on Aug. 24, 2010. That day, she and a group of Hoover students were at Big Mama’s, a restaurant near the high school.
     Big Mama’s was a popular hangout for high school students, but the students often caused trouble – including breaking out in fights – which meant that employees frequently had to call the police.
     The restaurant ended up instituting a “no loitering policy,” and only permitted students if they purchased something and were actually eating. Otherwise, they would be asked to leave.
     The day before the incident, restaurant manager Ebrahim Hussein met with Fresno Sergeant Larry Hustedde to discuss the problems he was having with the high school students loitering at Big Mama’s after school. Hustedde told Hussein he would help him enforce the restaurant’s no loitering policy.
     The next day, Johnson and her friends went to Big Mama’s and were standing in the patio area when Hustedde asked them to either go inside or leave. The students went inside, but what happened next is a matter of dispute between the parties.
     Johnson says that her friend offered to place their food order, so she sat down at a booth with her friends while waiting for her food. Hustedde allegedly came up and told her that she’d been there too long and it was time for her to go.
     The woman says that she told the sergeant that she was waiting for her food, and showed him her friend’s receipt.
     In response, the sergeant allegedly grabbed Johnson by her arm and yanked her out of the booth, slammed her onto the table and twisted her arm behind her back. He then pulled Johnson back up and used her body to shove open the front door, she says.
     Once outside, Hustedde slammed Johnson onto the trunk of his patrol car, causing her to fall to the ground, she claims.
     Hustedde then reached down and pulled Johnson off the ground by her pony tail and arm, wrapped his arms around her in a tight bear-hug hold. He released Johnson from the hold and held her by the right arm. As he reached down to pick up his sunglasses, Johnson was suddenly placed in a chokehold from behind by Officer Jeffrey Kaiser, who had just arrived on the scene, she says.
     “Plaintiff had difficulty breathing due to the chokehold, so she ‘used her hands to try to get Kaiser to loosen the pressure around her neck because she was suffocating.’ Plaintiff heard Hustedde tell Kaiser to let her go because she was choking, but ‘instead of letting go Kaiser put his hand over her mouth and nose,’ which felt like he was choking her harder,” according to the judge’s recap.
     The next thing Johnson says she remembered was sitting in a patrol car and having difficulty breathing. The officers allegedly ignored pleas by Johnson’s friends to leave the door open and get her help.
     Johnson says that at no time did she try to resist arrest, attempt to escape, or try to hit the officers.
     The officers’ version of the story is quite different.
     Hustedde says that when he approached Johnson inside the restaurant, she told him, “I ain’t talking to no cop,” and then turned her back toward him. He says that the student did not show him a receipt for a food purchase, refused to talk to him and told him not to “fucking touch” her when he tapped her on the shoulder.
     The sergeant says he told Johnson she was under arrest for trespassing. When she responded, “Don’t touch me, leave me alone, F you,” Hustedde pulled her out of the booth and started to walk her out of the restaurant, he says.
     Someone came up to them and tried to hand Johnson a receipt, but Hustedde said it was too late and did not attempt to determine whether the receipt actually belonged to Johnson because he was physically holding Johnson at that point, he says.
     The sergeant says that when he attempted to handcuff Johnson, she broke from his grasp and started to run, so he grabbed her ponytail and she fell down. He picked her back up and placed her in a bear hug to restrain her, he says, because she was “putting up an active fight.”
     Hustedde requested assistance at that point. Kaiser heard the call and headed to Big Mama’s.
     Kaiser says that when he arrived at the scene, Hustedde told him that Johnson was under arrest, so he took her by the left arm with both hands. It was then that Johnson allegedly yanked free of his grip, leading Kaiser to believe that she was trying to escape.
     The officer says that he placed his right arm around Johnson’s neck and collarbone area in an effort to control her. He believed that she was still trying to resist arrest because she was pulling at his arm and kicking at his legs.
     When Hustedde told Kaiser that it appeared Johnson was choking, Kaiser said that he was not choking her, but that Johnson was pushing his arm into her throat, Kaiser claims. The officers decided that Johnson was merely attempting to make it look like Kaiser was choking her and was playing it up for the crowd that had gathered.
     Kaiser says Johnson was placed in the back of the air-conditioned patrol car, adding that he opened the door when her friends complained that she couldn’t breathe and allowed the door to be open for the next two to three minutes.
     Johnson was charged with trespassing, battery on a police officer and resisting arrest, but the charges were all dropped in February 2012. She was expelled from Hoover High School as a result of the incident, but was reinstated after her expulsion was overturned.
     Johnson provided the court with a 2.5-minute video of the arrest taken by a witness. Both parties claim that the video supports their respective accounts of the incident and contradicts the opposing party’s account.
     O’Neill reviewed the video but chose not to summarize it other than in general terms, as that would “rise to subjective interpretation,” he wrote.
     Johnson filed a civil rights lawsuit against Hustedde and Kaiser in January 2014. On Monday, O’Neill refused to grant the officers summary judgment.
     “Assuming the truth of plaintiff’s testimony, because she had purchased something, she was not trespassing (or loitering). Thus, genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether Hustedde had probable cause to arrest her for trespassing,” O’Neill wrote.
     Likewise, there is no concrete evidence as to whether Johnson was trying to evade arrest when Kaiser had her in a hold or whether she was choking and could not breathe, the judge said.
     As far as Johnson’s claim for excessive force, “the parties’ respective testimony paints irreconcilable differences of what occurred,” O’Neill wrote.
     “Even deeming the video as undisputed evidence, it does not render the numerous disputed facts undisputed. The video sheds no light on what happened leading up to plaintiff’s arrest nor does it establish whether Hustedde used excessive force prior to the point where the video begins,” he continued.
     “Second, the video is low quality – it is grainy and shaky, at times not focused on plaintiff and defendants, and the bystanders frequently obfuscate the view,” O’Neill wrote.
     The judge also refused to grant the officers summary judgment on Johnson’s malicious prosecution claim, which alleges that they arrested her without probable cause, falsified evidence, distorted their reports, and provided false declarations.
     In addition to being able to proceed with all of her claims, Johnson can also seek punitive damages because “genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether defendants acted maliciously toward plaintiff,” O’Neill ruled.
     Johnson’s attorney, Jorge Gonzalez, said that the officers’ motion for summary judgment was “basically a waste of time.”
     “If we can show there are two versions of fact – their version and our version – then their motion for summary judgment is denied. When they bring these motions knowing there is a contrary set of facts, it’s kind of ridiculous. That’s why litigation ends up costing so much,” Gonzalez said.
     He said the case, which is expected to go to trial June 9, boils down to questions of credibility.
     The opposing side thinks “that Fresno juries are so conservative that they will always back the police. These guys just made this story up,” the attorney said, adding that the case shows why people across the country get so angry with law enforcement.
     “The way they manhandled this girl is just egregious behavior that’s not necessary,” he said. “And that’s what everybody is complaining about over this whole country – that cops can do no wrong. It’s all about backing the police officers, no matter how ridiculous their version of the facts is. These officers are trained. They have no reason to be manhandling a 15-year-old girl like that.”
     Gonzalez said he is optimistic about trial.
     “I think we have a very clear case. It’s a very strong case. But I’m just saddened by the political nature of this stuff, that the city is turning a blind eye to this. And why? The judge just shut down everything they argued. They won on nothing. Not one single issue,” he said.
     Attorneys for the officers did not immediately return a request for comment.

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